I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog that I studied history in college, and I went into detail about why I enjoyed that. In my experience, when people learn that you love history they tend to have one of two reactions. The first, if they are passionate about it themselves, is to try to quiz you on their period of interest. I remember crushing some poor music major’s dreams because I knew almost nothing about the Lusitania. (It sunk?) I’m studying Medieval and Renaissance Europe for goodness sake! To paraphrase my advisor: everything after 1500 is journalism.
The second is a bit more straightforward, and is probably a question you’ve been asked yourself, on occasion. This typically comes as an ice-breaker, or at some kind of social gathering where alcohol is involved. The exchange goes something like this: “Oh! Let me ask you something,” they look at you with great interest and prepare to drop their soul-searching bomb, “If you could live in any time period, what would it be?”
A friend of mine had a great pre-prepared answer to this question. She would choose to be born in the fifties. This way she could be a teenager in the sixties and early seventies, start her real professional life just as the eighties’ economic boom hit, and retire sometime around the present day. Her answer is simple, elegant, and rational. My answer makes me sound like a buzz-kill, and a poor history-lover at that. I would choose the present.
We were at the time, watching some rose-colored history.
Now I don’t say this to be contrarian, or to take the easy way out of the question, I just honestly think that this is the only sane answer. We have a tendency to look back on the past with rose-colored glasses. From what we remember from history classes and from the cultural perceptions that we glean from television and movies, we create ideas about what we think each era in history was. We remember the high moments of culture and human achievement and look back on them fondly. We daydream about the styles and cultures of previous generations. This is all very nice, and perfectly harmless, but it tells us nothing about what the past was really like.
The most epic and grandiose moments in human history do have an affect on who we are and how we behave, but they are only one part of it. We can all agree, for example, that the 9/11 terror attacks affected the lives of all Americans who lived through it, yet for most this is only one part of who they are. There are countless other factors, social and economic to name a few, that make us who we are. Similarly, the character of each generation can’t be boiled down to the events of a history book. To really understand a period we have to consider the sum of all its parts. Moreover, events that stand out sharply in hindsight might be stressful or even seem inconsequential at the time.
For example some accounts of the Gettysburg Address, widely regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American history, seem generally underwhelmed by it. This is a major turning point in United States history and yet many contemporaries felt unimpressed. And if you were living through this event there is no guarantee that you would even be aware of it. Imagine missing the moon landing broadcast, or failing to catch the Beatles at your local concert hall. We like to imagine that we would be Forrest Gump, but the version of yourself born in the past might miss them through no fault of your own.
Furthermore, it goes without saying that the past generally is a less advanced and less enlightened time than the present. Why would I want to live in an age like that? If you were living through the 20th century, as my friend chose, you would have to cope with rampant sexism and racism that was only beginning to be addressed by feminism and the Civil Rights movement. Now this sounds inspiring, but imagine actually having to go through that period and the stress that that would put on your life if you were born as a minority or as a woman. What terrifies me even more is imagining that I was born into a family that raised me to be a racist or a sexist myself and never knowing any better.
Perhaps I am being defeatist, but I have no interest in going through this if I can prevent it, either as an oppressor or as a victim. Another friend of mine once commented that I was trying to choose an easy life and implied that this was lazy. I think that this is a terribly privileged perspective. For the millions around the world who are suffering would they say that this is an easy time to be alive? As much as I think that challenges build character, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being grateful for what you have, and trying to use the opportunities available to you. In this case, I have the present, and I fully mean to take advantage of it as best I can.
Similarly, I can’t stand when people romanticize the violence of past ages and conflicts. Someone once mentioned to me that they wanted to live in Middle Earth and fight in the great battles of The Lord of the Rings. I blanched, and asked them how comfortable they were with hacking people into pieces, and hearing, seeing, and smelling that blood and gore. Of course I understand why images of men with swords ignites the imagination, but once you think about it I think that it becomes disgusting. “Serial-killer stuff,” as podcaster Dan Carlin put it.
I’ve never understood why people want to engage in battle re-enactments. Of course I understand that other kinds of reenacting can be fun, and I have friends who have done it and rave about it. I also know that it is a cultural thing for many people, like civil war reenactments, and I’m sure that it can be enjoyable. But in a way, I’ve always found them to be terribly insulting.
I’m not a soldier, and never felt the inclination to join the military, but I have tremendous respect for them. I feel the same way about soldiers from the past. I think that it’s strange, and macabre; to decide to reenact what might be the worst, or last, day of a man’s life. To me re-enacting a battle where men fought, and killed, and died turns my stomach. I remember once a person that I knew in high school came to me to talk about setting up a WWII reenacting club, and I had to do everything I could to not shout at him. It’s fine to study these moments of history, but I can’t help but feel disgusted by the idea of try pretend to be in them.
Don’t get me wrong, I would love to visit the past, (if a big blue Police Box showed up on my lawn I’d hop onboard) but I think that it’s better to live in the present. For the last five centuries or so, we have had the good fortune to live in times where progress has been constantly advancing our species. The importance of these cultural and technological steps forward cannot be overstated. It’s possible that we’ll soon reach a critical mass and find ourselves declining, but I think that now is likely a better time to be alive than any before us.
Only for Tennant.
Besides, we don’t know what the future will bring and that is what makes it so terribly exciting. We know what the great moments of our parents’ generations were, but we don’t yet know what will define ours. Perhaps this will be great, or perhaps it will be terrible. Yet the human race may reach new heights, and in my small way I would like to contribute to that. We’re all along for the ride, and I think I prefer to be moving forwards than backwards.